Sunday, November 21, 2010

'The Mystery Train' deserves attention

The Mystery Train (1931)
Starring: Marceline Day, Hedda Hopper, Nick Stuart, Al Cooke, Carol Tevis, and Bryant Washburn
Director: Phil Whitman
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sociopathic socialite Marion Radcliffe (Hopper) helps Joan (Day), a beautiful convicted criminal, escape from custody and makes her part of an elaborate scheme to force her to marry millionaire bachelor Ronald Stanthorpe (Stuart). Marion hopes to gain control of Ronald's fortune to replace her own lost fortune, but her plans start to unravel when Joan and Ronald truly fall in love, and it turns out that Joan was actually framed for her supposed crime and the authorities are not seeking her to put in her prison but to exonerate her.

"The Mystery Train" is an intrigue- and action-packed tale that packs more romance, comedy, and suspense into its 62-minute running time than many movies with twice the length manage to offer. The script is tight and lean, with not a scrap of padding in evidence as its characters move through the effectively paced and well-filmed scenes and story twists involving a train wreck, blackmail, cat-and-mouse with police detectives, stolen jewels... all of it leading to a suspenseful climax on a runaway, decoupled passenger train car that is carrying both heroes and villains to a certain doom.

Hedda Hopper does a nice job playing the vicious, scheming Radcliffe and Marceline Day is perfect as the innocent girl she is trying to use as her way back to unlimited wealth. Nick Stuart is a notch above the usual male leads in films like this, coming across as likable and charming rather than annoying or bland as is typical. The comic relief has even held up better to the passage of time than that in most B-movies of this vintage, with Al Cooke and Carol Tevis playing a pair of train-riding, barely newlyweds whose marriage is already on the rocks.

But this film isn't as good as it is just because because of the talented cast being served by a well-written script. Unlike many other films from this period set on trains, some effort was actually made by the director and effects people to make it seem like the actors are actually onboard a train. Using sound and motion, and even some unsteady steps as actors move through hallways, laudable and successful attempts to create the illusion of being on a moving train are made.

All in all, "The Mystery Train" is one of the many movies from the early days of talkies that doesn't deserve the obscurity it fell into. I recommend it to lovers of classic detective stories and dramas.

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